How PMOs Can Scale a Change-Ready Culture

Image of Cathy Rivian with her truck

PMO leaders who balance a strategic vision with empathy can elevate agility and resilience, says Cathy Hoenig of Rivian Automotive. But the value must be underscored to executives and peers alike. 

With change a constant for all organizations, forging a strategic vision for staying ahead of disruption and seamlessly adapting on demand is mission critical. But that challenge is magnified for companies managing explosive growth.  

That’s why U.S. electric vehicle startup Rivian Automotive created a project management office (PMO) for HR initiatives that helps seed a ready-for-anything mindset across the enterprise. The company’s People PMO ultimately ensures that talent is equipped to shift gears and sustain a first-mover advantage over legacy competitors.  

“There has been huge, hyper-growth in the last two years,” says Cathy Hoenig, PhD, senior manager of Rivian’s People PMO, Long Beach, California, USA. 

Rivian hired Hoenig at the start of 2021. Since that time the number of employees at the company has nearly quadrupled to more than 14,000. After more than two decades at aerospace giant Boeing, Hoenig is revealing the power of a PMO to accelerate change in a vastly nimbler environment.  

What’s at the heart of your responsibilities?
We’re going really fast and sometimes we need to pause and really look at how we’re approaching our core strategic business. We need to take time to ask: What are our core competencies? How do we want our culture to be? Having a PMO that develops clear structures is all part of how a company matures. I call it directed chaos. I was at Boeing for 22 years and it was like a cruise ship—even turning just took years. Rivian is more like a speedboat—and the PMO provides direction.

How does the PMO establish influence and support the organization’s strategic vision?
We’re constantly selling and telling the value of project management—to our CEO, to my VP’s peers, to all of my peers. Everybody can be a project manager, but not everybody understands the value and the outputs of a PMO. The people PMO team has a huge influence on directing the culture. We need to find innovative ways to engage the employees. And we need to ensure that they’re safe, productive and happy. 

From a strategic perspective, the PMO has helped Rivian reprioritize in ways that align with how it wants to grow—where we’re going to open up, how we can expand to different countries, what type of vehicle prototypes need to be designed. Learning has been my number one area for me. Things can change in 24 hours here, so we’re always cognizant of risks and connecting the dots to identify how one project can impact another, especially when it comes to our growth plans. 

How do you balance that change strategy with the need to deliver on the day-to-day needs of stakeholders? 
Day-to-day projects are our number one priority. The strategic part of that, from a people perspective, changes so often based on the business objectives. We need to align with a constantly changing vision for expansion. We also need to align with changes to our vehicles. Right now, all of our vehicles are considered first versions, so we’re moving into the next evolution of our vehicles. As a result, I’d say that 60 percent of our work is focused on current projects. The other 40 percent focuses on future initiatives—and even though that’s part of the strategic plan and something that I know that I’ll have some control over when it comes to fruition, we need to understand that it’s something that can still change. 

What is the biggest challenge for your projects—and how does the PMO help solve them?
HR projects never end. It’s constant scope creep. For example, we have a customizable human capital management system. Once you deploy it, you can always add another module or add another functionality—compensation review, onboarding, offboarding—to improve within that process. For our PMO, it's about helping teams find harmony between being consistent and systematic in your approaches, while also being flexible. I keep reminding my project managers that even though HR has some fast rules, you need to be able to change based on employees’ responses. When it comes to buy-in and feedback, there’s going to be a lot of good, bad and ugly with every initiative. It comes down to this: How emotionally charged will the employee be—and can project teams find ways to flex and unstructure themselves when necessary?  

Can you tell us about a project where the PMO had a major impact?
Our work arrangements project stands out the most. It took 18 months to complete. What began as a return-to-office initiative kept changing and turned into a future-of-work arrangements at Rivian. We have some leaders who wanted everyone to come back into the office, because they needed to see everybody’s face. But the pandemic created a work phenomenon that proved people working from home can be very productive. So we had to balance these polarizing strains. 

We came down to three work arrangements: on-site, flex and remote. After so much back and forth, we got to the point where we had to say, “This works for 80 percent of the employee population who need some structure, some definition of Rivian’s philosophy and what we stand for on work arrangements.” We deployed it and everybody knows their status. I call it a success, but just like anything, we’re probably going to change that sooner rather than later. 

What was the biggest lesson learned for the PMO?
The life cycle of this project has transformed our thinking. We’re in a whole different environment now. We needed to focus on how people are going to accept this. This is their lives. This isn’t just about commuting time; it’s about taking their children to school earlier or finding a babysitter. And HR project managers have that responsibility for integrating stakeholders, risk issues and how the project will be received. The dynamics there and the changing perspectives, all the way from the CEO down, were a lasting learning experience.


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